Keep Your Pet Healthy in 2020 Keep Your Pet Healthy in 2020


Two Possible Reasons Dogs Live Longer in Europe...

In part 3 of this 4-part series, Dr. Becker continues her interview with Ted Kerasote, bestselling author of Merle’s Door and several other wonderful books.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

In part 2 of my interview with Ted, we discussed how being the 'alpha' in your relationship with your dog may create a lack of freedom, an inequality, for your pet that can increase stress hormones and impact his health.

We also talked about the ingenious way Ted tracks his dog Pukka when he's not with him. Pukka is one lucky dog – he has the freedom to come and go from Ted's home as he sees fit, using the dog door Ted installed for his previous canine companion, Merle.

And we discussed Ted's keen interest in canine health, how he went about selecting Pukka, and how he's using his research into both subjects as the premise for a new book he's writing, Why Dogs Die Young, which will be out next year.

Ted's Around-the-World Research Project

Like most writers today, Ted is able to do a great deal of his research using the Internet. But he's also done quite a bit of traveling to learn all he can about canine health.

Ted explains that in writing his new book, he felt the need to visit veterinary teaching centers, to interview geneticists, and also to see how dogs live in other parts of the world. He makes the excellent point that the U.S. is relatively parochial, or insulated. We're bordered by oceans east and west, a single country to the north and another to the south. We really don't have a lot of opportunity to know how other cultures do things, and what we do hear or see is often sifted through the media.

Ted had seen some data that indicated dogs in Europe tend to live about a year longer than dogs in this country. So off he went – to England, Ireland, Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany and Italy!

He visited shelters. He talked to breeders and attended dog shows. He asked people on the street how they cared for their dogs. And he went to lots of pet stores and looked at the food they sold. The kibble in Europe isn't all that different from American kibble, as it turns out.

But European dogs do receive fewer vaccinations. Rabies has been essentially eradicated in Western Europe, so dogs that don't travel aren't required to get rabies vaccines. This probably provides them some protection from vaccine-related illness, especially since the rabies vaccine with its aluminum-containing adjuvant, is one of the more troublesome vaccines administered to dogs.

Spaying and Neutering – Europe versus North America

Ted goes on to explain that probably the biggest difference between how dogs in Europe are raised versus dogs in the U.S. is, Europe doesn't spay or neuter at nearly the rate we do in North America.

As I've written about here at, and a subject Ted and I have discussed more than once, sterilization seems to have a significant impact on both the endocrine and immune systems of dogs.

Ted points out there's no long-term study that has followed spayed and neutered dogs and intact dogs over their lifetimes to say definitively, 'Yes, Group A lives longer and has few chronic diseases.' But there's certainly a growing body of evidence pointing in that direction.

Ted explains that when he talks about the spay/neuter difference in front of groups, he receives a lot of concerned feedback and even angry responses, particularly from folks in the shelter community. People in the shelter community make the point that sterilization is how we control the dog population in North America.

So Ted went on to research the effectiveness of U.S. shelter operations. He wanted to know why we're still euthanizing an estimated two millions dogs each year. What are the key factors?

Ted talked to a lot of people in shelter leadership positions, and it seems the problem is becoming more one of supply and demand rather than that no one wants those two million homeless dogs. It's more a problem these days of connecting people with the dogs they want – getting the right dogs to the right shelters for the people who want to adopt them.

Why Not Tubal Ligations and Vasectomies Instead of Spay/Neuter?

When Ted talked to the shelter community about the possibility of doing vasectomies and tubal ligations rather than spaying and neutering in order to preserve the sex hormones, the response he received made a lot of sense. The shelter folks asked, 'Well, what do you do in a shelter where you have all these female dogs in estrus (heat) and all these howling male dogs? How do you make that work in a shelter environment?' Ted feels this is a very valid question.

The shelter community feels that while vasectomies and tubal ligations may be fine for individual owners who can keep their female dogs sequestered away from male dogs during heats, there's no practical way for a shelter to manage a similar arrangement. And Ted agrees, of course.

But Ted poses the question for those of us not running shelters. Why spay or neuter when there is so much evidence it may not be the best thing for the dog's health -- especially when there are alternatives available?

Ted asked his research assistant to call all 26 veterinary teaching colleges in the U.S. And he discovered not one of them is offering instruction on vasectomies and tubal ligations.

Some of those called became incensed Ted would even suggest things should change, which puzzled him. So he would ask, 'Are you invested in having fewer unwanted puppies, or are you invested in spaying and neutering?' Some of the people he talked to had no answer for his question. Others were quite honest in sharing they felt they were 'too old to change.'

Ted then mentioned a conversation he and I once had on the subject, and how he remembered it took me about 40 cadavers to learn how to do vasectomies and tubal ligations.

And he's right – I had to practice. And in fact, I practiced on wildlife, because they were about the only animals I came across that were still intact. So when someone dropped off, say, an opossum or a raccoon hit by a car – or if an animal died at my clinic – I would practice by performing a vasectomy or a tubal ligation on them.

People in the U.S. are Conditioned to Believe Being a Responsible Pet Owner Means Spaying or Neutering

It's a frustrating subject because in this country, we equate being responsible with spaying and neutering. We don't just alter an animal's ability to reproduce, we insist on removing important body parts like the testicles and ovaries.

And in fact, it is to the point where some people don't even recognize testicles on a dog when they see them. They're like, 'What are those?' When they realize what they are, they ask why they're still there. This is instead of asking whether the human with the dog is a responsible pet owner and has perhaps found the rare veterinarian who will actually perform a vasectomy. A male dog that has received a vasectomy gets to keep his testicles.

I have even done phone consults with people in Arizona who choose to drive to California for an appointment with a soft tissue veterinary surgeon who will do a vasectomy for $1,500.

This is a very unfortunate situation, when the technique could easily be taught in vet schools and made widely available to pet owners in every state. What needs to happen is a change in mindset.

I share with Ted that I think it's awesome he's willing to bring the issue to light so hopefully, at some point, we can come up with a better solution to control our pet population.

Ted agrees that culturally, we've succeeded in making spaying and neutering our default position. Pet owners blindly follow the program without understanding the potential health impact or that there are alternatives.

Ted mentions that when he interviewed Bruce Fogle, a British vet and author of many books, he said something very interesting. Fogle said, 'My North American clients living in London get a male dog, bring him to me and tell me to neuter.' And he asks them why. Their response: 'Well, you have to neuter male dogs!' And Fogle again asks them why. They have no other answer – no medical reason. They just assume it must be done.

He asks them, 'Is your dog free-roaming?' They answer no. 'Do you keep it on a leash?' They answer yes. 'Is it in the dog park under your supervision?' Again the answer is yes. So Fogle asks them who, exactly, their dog is going to impregnate.

Fogle told Ted it's very rare that a British citizen brings him a dog to neuter.

Off With Those Testicles!

Ted says he gets a lot of comments about Pukka when people notice he has testicles. He's gotten some extremely angry responses, interestingly, always from women and never from a man. A woman will watch Pukka walking away and she'll say, 'He's got balls!' This is a direct quote!

And Ted will respond, 'Well, yeah. He's a male dog.' So the next question is, 'Aren't you going to fix him?' And Ted says, 'Why? There are no intact female dogs in Kelly, Wyoming. Kelly has 35 dogs and we know them all. You don't move to Kelly anonymously. It's just too small.'

I agree with Ted that people equate your responsibility as a dog owner with whether or not your pet is neutered. We've been conditioned to believe that if we choose not to neuter (despite the individual circumstances in which our dog lives), we are being wildly irresponsible.

I worked at a kill shelter as a younger person, and we firmly believed owners who didn't spay or neuter were simply uneducated. And I could do enough talking as an employee of the shelter to convince people they must spay or neuter. At that point in my life, I believed pet owners couldn't necessarily be trusted to know what to do, and I also believed dogs were healthier if they were spayed or neutered.

These days, I have to re-educate a lot of my clients … after I apologize. I've cried many tears in my exam room as I apologized for creating some endocrine-related disease or other by insisting a pet be spayed or neutered, many of them before puberty.

I just didn't know then what I know now. And it saddens me.

Breeding Dogs: Another No No?

Ted reveals that another cultural dynamic he sees operating here is in regard to breeding dogs.

Ted might tell someone: 'Pukka's got good genes. I spent a lot of time looking for genes like his. He's clear for centronuclear myopathy. He's clear for PRA (a genetic eye disease). He's got good hips and good elbows. It might be nice to pass these genes on.'

The response is almost always 'You want to breed him?' in a tone that says clearly this is not a good thing. There is a small but vocal minority of the dog-owning population in this country that thinks breeding any dog is morally reprehensible.

Ted's response is, 'If you carry that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, there are no more dogs.'

He has to ask, 'Where do we think dogs come from?' Dogs must breed to make more dogs. The question should be, how can we make more dogs that are the healthiest dogs possible?

To alter every dog sounds crazy to Ted. It also takes a lot of genetically healthy dogs out of the population.

Ted feels what spay/neuter has done in the shelter population is what narrowing the funnel of purebred dogs to those with exaggerated anatomical features has done in the purebred population.

Both strategies have decreased the genetic diversity of dogs. Choosing only certain popular sires in the purebred world, and spaying or neutering everything that moves in the shelter world, has created fewer and fewer good sets of dog genes out there. At the same time, it has increased the incidence of disease because we are providing ever greater opportunities for recessive genes to meet.

Ted doesn't believe people are thinking through the issue of long-term canine health when they take the approach to 'Spay and neuter everyone.'

I agree, and another painful fact is that all the backyard breeders will continue to breed, regardless. They don't always care if the thyroid is clear, or the eyes, elbows, or hips.

The challenge is to try to protect and preserve stable, viable gene pools, when the underlying tone here is no dog should be bred ever again.

Ted will touch on this in his new book, as well as the overpopulation problem. He's spent a lot of time researching those issues, which is wonderful. He'll be asking some really tough questions that even the shelter community has not thought through.

Stay tuned for the fourth and final installment of my interview with Ted, in which we'll finish up our shelter discussion and talk about ideas for creating more dog-friendly communities.

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